Dubai: A total of 354 Indian nationals, including 11 pregnant women and a pair of twins, will return home on Thursday in the first two flights from the UAE to Kerala as India begins its biggest ever repatriation exercise to bring back its citizens stranded abroad amidst the international travel lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, the Indian government announced plans to begin a phased repatriation of its citizens stranded abroad from May 7. The government also said that Air India will operate 64 flights from May 7 to May 13 to bring back around 15,000 Indian nationals stranded abroad amid the COVID-19-induced lockdown.
Short-listing the first passengers from among a database of more than 200,000 applicants, who include around 6,500 pregnant women, has been a mammoth task which posed several challenges for the missions, Neeraj Agrawal, Consul, Press, Information and Culture at the Indian Consulate in Dubai told the Gulf News.
As many as 354 of them from the UAE will fly back to India in the first two flights to Kerala on Thursday, the report said.
An Air India Express flight, which is scheduled to take off from Abu Dhabi to Kochi at 4.15 pm is the first flight, which will be followed by a Dubai-Kozhikode flight of the same airline at 5.10pm, it said.
India is conducting its biggest ever repatriation exercise named Vande Bharat Missionsans social distancing and COVID-19 tests to bring back stranded Indians from abroad.
The Indian missions in the UAE finalised the list of passengers, who were chosen based on the compelling reasons they submitted while registering their names.
"Only passengers with confirmed tickets must proceed to the airport. They are required to reach the airport five hours prior to departure," Agrawal said.
The Indian Consulate has appealed to passengers not to overcrowd the airport, maintain social distancing and follow all necessary precautions stipulated by the authorities, he was quoted as saying by the report.
"We are trying to accommodate as many deserving people as possible. We expect the understanding of the people. It has been very difficult to sort out everyone's urgency," he said.
Though we want to give priority to pregnant women, it is practically not possible and not good for the health and safety of the applicants to allot a lot of them on the same flight.
He said 11 pregnant women have been issued tickets on the Dubai-Kozhikode flight, the report added.
He said the government is trying to add more flights to un-chartered destinations and a new flight from Dubai to Kannur has been added on May 12.
An elderly couple is on the list who was in Dubai to visit their son when the lockdown in India led to cancellation of flights and they could not leave from the UAE.
"We are really lucky to have made it to the list. It was our wish to be in Kerala for Ramzan and also celebrate Eid with family back home. We have no words to thank the UAE and India government," Khader, 65, told the Khaleej Times.
"CGI Dubai wishes them a safe flight...@ indiandiplomacy@meaindia Elderly Indian couple from UAE on repatriation flight happy to spend Ramadan in Kerala," Consulate General of India, Dubai tweeted.
Indian identical twins Jackson and Benson Andrews are also among the ones who received an e-mail from the Consulate General of India in Dubai on Tuesday to fly back home.
"CGI Dubai is very pleased to assist twin brothers in their safe reparuation back home today. @MEAIndia @IndianDiplomacy @MOS_MEA @PMOIndia Indian twins, stuck at Dubai airport for 50 days, set to fly home," the consulate tweeted.
"We received the letter from the consulate on Tuesday. A copy of our flight tickets have been sent to us as well," Jackson told Khaleej Times.
Jaimson Pappachan, an expat for 27 years and his wife and child will be on the first flight from Abu Dhabi to Kochi, the Khaleej Times reported.
"I received a call from the Indian Embassy on Tuesday and booked our tickets at the Air India Express office on Wednesday. Now, I am busy moving our stuff through cargo, Pappachan said.
Thejjass Jyothilal has spent just eight months in Abu Dhabi when his company winded up their project.
"I am placed on unpaid leave. There is no point continuing here like this as I don't know for how long this will continue. So, I am leaving but will return as my visa is valid, Jyothilal was quoted as saying by the report.
Air India Express which will operate the first two flights to Kerala on Thursday will operate its Boeing 737-800 aircraft, with a seating capacity of 186 economy class seats. With nine seats reserved for isolation, only 177 passengers would be flown.
Air India crew members on board the repatriation flights will be fully protected with protective gear, including Personal Protective Equipment, to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus, Khaleej Times reported.
The Indian expatriate community of approximately 3.42 million is reportedly the largest ethnic community in the UAE constituting roughly about 30 per cent of the country's population, according to information available on the Indian Embassy website.
India imposed a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the country, grounding all international flights since mid-March. Under the repatriation plan, the government will be facilitating the return of Indian nationals stranded abroad on compelling grounds in a phased manner.